1) Self Introduction
Hi, nice to meet you guys. My name is Michael, founder and CEO of Prime X Education. Growing up in Shenzhen, I completed my middle school and high school study in one of the most prestigious schools in the city, Shenzhen Foreign Languages School, known as SFLS. After that, I went to the U.S. to study Journalism at UT Austin and then returned to China to work as an education consultant, who mainly helps Chinese students with their whole application packages.
I hope that today you can leave this talk with some insightful takeaways as to what’s expected from your college application essays as well as how you can fuse your life experience and activities into your Personal Statement essay.
2) Why do you write PS? What schools are looking for from your PS?
Most schools that you’ll be applying to accept the Common App, for which you will have to write a personal statement essay that is 650 words or less. This essay is your chance to show admissions officers your personality, which is hard to convey in mere numbers (transcripts, test scores) and lists (activity sheet). The American college admissions process considers each student holistically—taking into account their unique personality and extracurricular activities such as volunteer work and athletics. Admissions officers genuinely want to know who you are. They want to see that you’re a multifaceted human being, with a robust personality, and who is capable of giving a glimpse into their identity through a story, or narrative.
你申请的大多数学校都会接受通用申请系统，因此你必须写一篇650字以内的主文书。这篇文章是你向学校招生官展示你的个性的机会，很难用简单的数字（成绩单，标化成绩）和活动列表来呈现。美国大学录取过程是从整体上考量每个申请者的 - 从他们独特的个性到所参与的课外活动，例如志愿者工作和体育活动等等。招生官由衷的想知道你是谁，他们希望看到你是一个全面发展的，具有鲜明个性的人，并且能够通过故事或叙述瞥见申请者的身份。
Rather than fearing the essay-writing process, as most students do, you should be grateful that schools care to know who you are…beyond test scores and utilitarian lists of activities. Naturally, the first step to writing thoughtfully crafted essays is knowing who you are and which aspects of your personality you want to reveal to admissions officers. You will convey these points through the content of your essays, as well as through your writing voice.
Some aspects that American colleges love are of course, sports (sports are a huge part of American culture, and a solid athlete is always well-respected), individualism, dedication, and passion. Since the era of Manifest Destiny, Americans have always romanticized the individual who can “pull himself up by his own bootstraps,” as seen in old Cowboy Westerns and in the common Man versus Society themes of modern day movies. Despite the fact that, to use a trite phrase, we are living in an “increasingly globalized world” where team effort is valued, one cannot simply erase a notion of a nation’s collective past with a present-day need. Also, American college admissions officers like to see long-term commitment to one or two activities. It’s better to truly devote yourself to something and excel at it (or at least, harbor a deep, genuine interest in it), than to superficially hop from activity to activity while only scratching the surface of each. Lastly, Americans love to see passion (an overused word that you should not use in your essays, by the way!). It doesn’t matter where your passion lies – in the science lab, on the sports field, in the music practice room, or simply reading novels or drawing – as long as your passion radiates through your words and reflects your personality and penchants, you should write about it.
美国大学喜欢的一些方面当然是体育（体育是美国文化的重要组成部分，坚忍的运动员总是受到尊重），个人主义，奉献精神和热情。自从昭昭天命之世以来，美国人总是把那些能够“自助式的自我提升”的人浪漫化，正如过去的西部牛仔片以及现代电影中“人对抗社会”的共同主题一样。尽管如此，老生常谈的说，我们生活在一个“日益全球化的世界”中，这使得团队的努力备受重视，人们不能简单地抹去一个民族集体过去的概念与当今的需要。此外，美国大学招生官喜欢看到的是你长期致力于的一两项活动，最好是真正投入到某种事物并且真正掌握它（或至少对它是有深刻的，真正的兴趣），而不是肤浅地从对一个活动的兴趣转移到另一个活动上，这样仅仅只是抓住每个事物的表面而已。最后，美国希望喜欢看到你的激情体现在哪里（顺便说一句，“激情”是一个在你的文书中要尽量避免被过度使用的词）。无论你的激情在哪里 - 在科学实验室，运动场，音乐练习室，或只是阅读小说或绘画 - 只要你的激情通过你的言语能散发出并反映出你的个性和倾向，你就应该把它写下来。
3) Common structure of PS + alternative structures of the essay (quick overview)
Most common PS structure (the typical personal narrative essay structure and its components, starting with a hook and conveying several scenes like in a movie).
Depending on the content of your essay, you may opt to be more creative and use an alternative structure, such as a diary format (great for travel trips or experiences in which your internal change happened over a period of a few days or at most, a summer), a manifesto (great for students who have firm convictions that define them, perhaps a type of faith, a code of living, or something more specific such as vegetarianism, or a pivotal essay (which is where you start with the conflict of the story as your hook).
4) What types of experiences can you discuss?
Sports; artistic hobbies such as drawing, painting, calligraphy, playing an instrument, being an active member of an orchestra or band; travel (but not a cliché trip to Africa which opened up your eyes to the poverty of the world, which sounds like a hackneyed naïve piece and is overdone); and turning a negative life experience into a positive by seeing the silver lining and taking action. Just choose whichever is most meaningful to you. For example, maybe you define yourself first as a musician; go ahead and write an essay about the piano or whatever instrument you play. There are endless possibilities with such essays—e.g., you could write about how playing an instrument contributed to your personal growth (choosing a specific reason, such as how daily practice made you more disciplined or how overcoming plateaus in progress taught you the value of consistency) or how it developed your artistic faculties. Maybe you define yourself as an athlete. You could write about how playing soccer changed you from more of a loner into someone who truly recognizes the values of teamwork and camaraderie. You could write about how strengthening your body during intense workouts on the field and in the gym unexpectedly also strengthened your willpower by teaching you the veracity of “mind over matter.” No matter what talent you choose, there are a plethora of ways you can write about it; there is no cookie-cutter mold for the content of these essays. Just take a minute to reflect on how the talent has actually impacted or changed you.
How to make sports unique—don’t focus on the “persistence” aspect that a sport instilled in you! This is extremely overdone! I’ll give you an example of how you can take a sports essay and give it your own spin. One of our students last year was an excellent football player, Nathan. On the outside, he looked a bit scary to be honest—very tall, jacked, long hair, and chiseled features reminiscent of the werewolves in Twilight. However, when I heard him speak for the first time I was shocked. He had the most docile tone and seemed extremely shy. Clearly not what I expected. When we spoke, I found that he was apathetic about most things except philosophy. He was in his existential crisis phase, a bit early on but oh well.
For his essay, we focused on how playing football allowed him to unleash this quasi-aggressive, testosterone-laden side of him on the field that was usually repressed. In school and real life, Nathan is quiet, shy, and demur, and on the field, he runs free and hits hard, proof of humanity’s primal instincts. Playing football allowed Nathan to express his duality, and the release of energy on the court, which resulted in big wins for his school team, ended up translating into an increased confidence in the classroom. Nathan started to speak up more and feel more comfortable expressing his ideas in class, and when he felt comfortable expressing his ideas and having them questioned by peers and teachers, naturally his own philosophical views were influenced and even altered a bit. In the end, the essay ended up becoming a very reflective piece on the duality of man combined with a teenager’s philosophical shift, all made possible thanks to football! Who would’ve guessed? This was a unique essay, and Admissions Officers definitely were not expecting such views and introspection from a football player.
5）Valuable tips for your personal essay
·Start as early in the process as possible. The more time you have to write, the more revising you can do and thus, the better your essay will be. Also, procrastination leads to unnecessary stress.
·Brainstorm and outline before you begin. It’s amazing how many ideas you can come up with through effective brainstorming. Jot down strengths, interests, talents, or aspects of your personality that you really want the admissions officers to know about. Creating an outline will allow you to view the entire skeleton of your essay, making flaws in flow and organization of ideas visible.
·Make your essay your own. Think about what you care about, what sparks your interest, or what motivates you, and then write about it. Don’t write about what you think admissions officers want to hear.
·Don’t be common. Take a risk! Don’t write what everyone else is writing about. Read essays online, ask your friends what they are writing about, and then choose something completely different.
·Allow your personality to shine. This is the only part of the application that allows admissions officers to see you from your own perspective. If you are generally a funny person, feel free to sprinkle a few witticisms or silly metaphors in your essay, but don’t attempt to write an entire satire or comical piece. Remember: the essay’s purpose is to convey your intelligence, passions, and strengths—not your sense of humor.
·Stay focused. This is your chance to tell the admissions officers why they should accept you. They already have your activity sheet, so avoid making your essay read like a stale grocery list of awards and accomplishments. Rather, choose one topic that really interests you, and write about it. Stick to one main theme throughout the entire essay. Even if the essay prompt is rather broad, your answer should be narrow. Through specific details and real examples, your writing will reveal your passions and personality.
·Have fun! College admissions essays tend to lean more toward personal narrative and free-form writing and are therefore more loosely structured than academic essays. It is still important to have your ideas flow logically within and between paragraphs, but this essay is not a test in creative writing. Content trumps form—once you figure out what to write about (arguably the most difficult part), just let the words flow with sincerity during your first draft.
·Be specific, clear, and to-the-point.
·Do not exceed the word limit.
·Don’t plagiarize. This should go without saying, but don’t ever copy or tweak someone else’s essay. Even if you found it buried hundreds of clicks away from an initial Google search, admissions officers have literally read thousands (if not tens of thousands) of college application essays in their lives and more than likely will be able to spot plagiarism. Plagiarizing is simply unacceptable in America, and a plagiarized essay will be tossed in the trash.
·Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Don’t expect a flawless (or even good) essay on your first try. The pressure will stress you out and probably contribute to a frustrating case of writer’s block. Don’t worry about trivial things you can clean up later, such as grammar or spelling. First, simply get your ideas off your head and onto paper. Then, a few hours or even a few days later, look at your work with “fresh eyes.”
·Edit. Go through your entire essay a few times and Spell Check (once on the computer, and once or twice manually for homonymic mistakes that a word processor may not catch such as “they’re” vs. “their”). Remove frivolous or nondescript words such as “very,” “many,” and “interesting,” which weaken your writing. Check for grammatical and punctuation errors. You may want to ask someone who hasn’t yet read your essay to proofread it for you, as they are more likely to catch mistakes. Even minor mistakes show a lack of care for quality in your work.
·Ask a friend or teacher for an opinion. When you think you’re finally done with this grueling process, find someone whose opinion you trust (e.g., a scholarly friend, an English teacher, a parent). Ask them what you can do to improve your writing, and accept their feedback gracefully. Listen carefully and consider their suggestions. In the end, it is your essay, so do not implement any changes you disagree with and ensure that your narrative remains in your writing voice.
·Read your essay aloud. Yes, aloud. Not in your head. By reading an essay aloud, you will be able to pick up any phrases that sound awkward or wordy while noticing which areas don’t flow smoothly.
6) Essay Topics to Avoid
·Your heroism. If you saved someone in a swimming pool and that experience really changed you, okay, write about it. Just make sure the essay does not come off as arrogant. Be humble when describing your heroic (a word to avoid in the essay, by the way) efforts.
·Pity me! Topics such as sexual assault, death, rape, depression, and suicide attempts are far too heavy—yet unfortunately, all too common—for a college admissions essay. Such topics may even raise a red-flag as to how ready you are to handle college at this point. Save these topics for a psychology class or your diary.
·Excuses. Related to “Pity me!” excuses (e.g., divorce or death in the family, moving to a new school) for bad grades should be explained in a supplemental attachment. Most applications provide an area where you can explain extenuating circumstances that may have affected your academic record. Keep these short and sweet, and most importantly, far away from your main essays.
·The travel itinerary. So many students write about traveling that it is no longer a unique topic. If one excursion changed you for the better or opened your eyes in some way, focus on it. Just make sure to explore the important aspects of the journey in-depth and introspectively, rather than providing an itinerary of places you’ve been to.
·Touchy religious or political issues. Major issues such as abortion, the legalization of marijuana, and overseas wars are extremely divisive. Though you may be convinced your arguments are solid and that your point of view is “right,” no one likes being lectured to. The risks of offending the admissions officers are too high, so save these types of essays for history, political science, or sociology courses once/if you’re accepted.
·Dating/sex life. Writing about a steamy or controversial topic may be an easy way to grab the reader’s attention, but it will likely just embarrass your reader. Avoid topics you would not feel comfortable discussing with a stranger. Some aspects of life are best kept private.
·Dodgy Behavior. Don’t ever write about anything remotely illegal, such as gambling, drag racing, or substance (ab)use, no matter how cool or fascinating you may find the topic or how seamlessly you can weave it into a narrative. Again, colleges are business organizations who seek to mitigate their risk, so avoid coming off as even 1% of a liability.